A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith
By Brian D. McLaren
320 pp. HarperOne. $24.99

When I praise Plato and defend my teaching Republic to college freshmen, I often say that Plato’s excellence lies not in the fact that he’s always right but that when he’s wrong, he’s wrong in compelling ways, ways that inspire me to imagine a better alternative.  While Brian McLaren is no Plato, parts of his most recent book A New Kind of Christianity have that Platonic character to them, getting things very wrong in ways that set me thinking about how I’d improve on his points.  Other parts of the book resonate quite nicely with things that I try to do as a Christian teacher or realize now that I should try to do.  But other parts still, alas, smack of the sleight-of-hand, the well-poisoning, and the other dirty trickery that make me mistrust apologetics literature of various sorts.  In other words, A New Kind of Christianity is a complex book, not consistently excellent but nonetheless very helpful in places.

Brian McLaren Gets it Right

As Phil Rutledge pointed out in response to our podcast on the Haiti Earthquake, when I talk about the Bible, I tend to talk not about one unified document but a library, various not only in cosmetic details but in a more robust sense of genre, asking certain questions in this book that lie out of bounds in other books, offering teachings here that seem to stand at least in tension with teachings there.  (I should note the obvious, namely that I do not speak for the other Christian Humanists on this point or necessarily on any given point.)  I tend to think that the flexibility of such a collection is part of the Bible’s strength, that the practice of being Christian community is richer because Christian teachers can pull from a broad range of resources depending on the contingencies of the moment without having to pretend that every moment is the same as every other moment.  When we need a text that shakes us out of complacency, the Bible has a book for that.  When we lean over the precipice of despair, the Bible has a book for that.  And so on.  I think that McLaren offers a handy next step in that thought process, noting that the Bible is a true collection of texts precisely because of the “spaces between” those strong positions of Deuteronomy or 1 Chronicles on one hand and Ecclesiastes or Job on the other.

Furthermore, McLaren highlights the God-defining character of Christ and insists that the Palestinian Jew Jesus of Nazareth and not the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover is a better starting point for disciplined reflection upon the character of God.  I know that making the historical Jesus that radically central flies in the face of much systematic theology (including that of Thomas Aquinas, one of my favorites), but I agree with McLaren that such a move is ultimately more faithful to the gospel of John among other Scriptural witnesses.

Finally, when McLaren gives advice to parishioners and clergy who find themselves resonating with progressive ideas, and his counsel leans consistently towards humble and peace-seeking measures rather than grandstanding, intellectual and moral arrogance, and other vices that so often characterize folks who think they’ve gotten something right while their neighbors still get it wrong.  His exhortation to “be a blessing” is probably my favorite part of the book.

I noted above, and I write again, this book does get some things very right, and by no means should anyone think that it’s error, error, error all the way down.

Brian McLaren Gets it Wrong

That said, as someone who loves intellectual history and who values some degree of historical precision, I do blame this book for playing fast and loose with historical identifications for the sake of scoring cheap rhetorical points.  One of the jokes that was current during my days at The Ooze forums was that the Emergent words for “really quite bad” were “modern” and “modernist,” and the word for “so much better, don’t you think?” was “postmodern.”  McLaren seems to have left that ugly and misleading binary pair only to settle on another pair, just as ugly and even more misleading (and also a binary that I started encountering back in seminary), the Manichean dualism of “the Bible” and “Greco-Roman religion.”  Resisting the temptation to examine every instance of “Greco-Roman” meaning just plain “bad,” I’ll point out a few that drew a chuckle from me for their historical naivete: Greco-Roman religion, apparently, has no place in it for homosexuality (175–apparently all of that Athenian praise for pederasty as superior to love-of-women doesn’t count), does not allow for multiple religions (212–never mind the Roman Empire’s grand scheme of syncretism that incorporated pantheons as diverse as the Celts’ and the Egyptians’), and stands as a pernicious idol called Theos, who stands as enemy to the Biblical god Elohim (65–I suppose the New Testament authors didn’t get the memo that the Greek language had that idol mixed in there).

The content of McLaren’s “Greco-Roman” tradition came about as the fruit of a conversation he relates in which an epiphany came to him, namely that the broad outlines of the traditional Evangelical narrative (he extends it to Catholic and Magesterial Protestant traditions as well) derive not from Biblical narratives but from Plato.  Unfortunately, McLaren casts Plato only as the first step in a larger metanarrative, and that move is what makes things go downhill in a hurry.  In McLaren’s “six-line narrative” to which he refers again and again as he digs into his ten questions, Plato is only the first stage in the grand narrative, ruined when the world falls from Platonic perfection (which sounds more like Plotinus’s realm of Ideas) into the “storied” world of Aristotle.

I’m certain Aristotle would have been surprised to find out that he was writing a simple sequel to Plato rather than supplanting his philosophy, but even more surprising to Alexander’s tutor would no doubt be that, according to McLaren, Aristotle held that forms do not have any existence, properly speaking, save as mental constructs.  (If Dante’s right that Aristotle is in Limbo, where he might converse with future ages’ non-Christian philosophers, no doubt someone has told him by now that the forms as purely mental was actually one of William of Ockham’s central contributions to philosophy in the fourteenth century.)  Perhaps more surprising still would be that, after dwelling in the Aristotle trench, the eternal souls that Plato does talk about (though sometimes in terms of reincarnation) return to a “Platonic” stasis, some by achieving salvation (another category rather alien to Plato and to Aristotle) and then reaching a final Platonic (neo-Platonic?) ideal, and some by falling into what McLaren calls “Greek Hades,” a construct that of course predates Plato and Aristotle by a few centuries and has little to do, in the texts I’ve read, with punishing earthly evil.  If one says anything about Homer’s Hades, one should say that it’s terrifyingly egalitarian, and that’s what Achilles hates so much–he’s forgotten just as readily as all of the other shades about him.

If all of that sounds familiar through the haze of misused Greek texts, it’s because the “Greco-Roman narrative” that McLaren would impose upon Plato and Aristotle (the tag team!) is far more akin to what Origen, Augustine, and other Christian writers would call the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption.  Although certain iterations of that narrative sequence deserve criticism, McLaren does nobody any favors (especially those of us who love teaching Plato) by inventing a syncretic thought-system that simply does not exist in classical texts and then loading that cumbersome burden on some of Christianity’s best tutors.

As a passing comment in the introduction to one of his chapters, McLaren notes that, although he’s not been a seminarian, he has read “thousands of theology books” (78).   I suppose my own counsel for aspiring Christian writers is that we read fewer books, perhaps dozens, but take the time that good books deserve to understand and live with them.

Brian McLaren Gets Sneaky

Given the unhappy choice between accusing a writer I like (and I do like Brian McLaren) of duplicity and insinuating that the same writer has forgotten or misread, I’ll usually err on the side of charity and say that, for example, McLaren probably read some really bad books about Greco-Roman philosophy instead of reading translations of Plato and Aristotle themselves, and that likely led to his strange construction “Greco-Roman.”  But there are moments of this book that make me deeply suspicious, and although I’d prefer not to approach people I like with suspicion… well, here goes.

In an early section of the book, McLaren relates a talk he gave at a conference in which he lined up seven people on the stage, each representing a historical figure. In a diagram that I won’t reproduce here (I’m going to be cross-posting this review, and so I’m trying to keep html to a minimum), McLaren labels seven stick figures as follows:

Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther or Erasmus, Calvin or Wesley or Newton, Pope Benedict or Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham

After he briefly notes that folks who get their theology from this stream aren’t “directly seeing Jesus” (36), he gives the people in the row a different set of names:

Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Amos or Isaiah or Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus

His point seems to be that the reading of Biblical texts that will follow in his book, unlike the “Greco-Roman” version of things, would work forwards up to Jesus rather than backwards to Jesus, therefore giving a different sort of story.

The problems are obvious, of course: without even reaching for my bookshelf, I could tell you in which books Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, and Pope Benedict talk about the six figures that McLaren seems to think he’s rediscovering. Beyond that, McLaren’s progressive theology, a tradition that doubtless deserves a hearing in its own right and on its own terms, has its own “hidden six” that McLaren never names. So if I might offer one possible lineup, some whose influence I detect globally and others with page numbers where I detected some of their influence:

Jesus, Vico (50-51), Hegel (239), Marx (239) or Darwin (14-15), Nietzsche or Wellhausen, Foucault (31) or Freud or Bultmann, Ehrman or Crossan or Borg

Such is not to say that the Traditionalist Six automatically deserves more of a hearing than do the Progressive Six. But I do think that anyone, left-wing or right-wing, should have the honesty to name one’s own influences rather than pitting one’s own Bible-loving self against one’s traditions-of-men enemies. All of us who come to the Christian tradition know Adam and David; let’s have some honest conversation about how we’re using them and how they influence us.

Beyond the invisible-influence suspicion, I had some real troubles with the ways that McLaren talks about professionally trained authority figures. In one passage he would say that folks who hold seminary credentials likely have good intentions but, because of their need to support themselves and because they haven’t progressed along his (Maslow-flavored–this is another instance of invisible influence) color-coded scale of theological awareness. In another he would refer to clergy-types as prison guards (31) who are keeping folks from their spiritual freedom. And with regards to formal training itself, McLaren in this book, as in his other books, makes a point of boasting that he’s not had formal seminary training (though apparently he’s read thousands of theology books), but late in the game, giving advice to clergy who think their congregations might be interested in moving up a step on the Maslow-McLaren rainbow, writes thus:

Get a consultant. There is enormous power in having the guidance of a wise, gifted, and experienced person who remains outside your congregational or denominational system. Good consultants are expensive, I know, but so are good heart surgeons, and the two have a lot in common. (247)

First of all, as someone who loves Plato (the real Plato, not the one whom McLaren invents earlier in the book), I immediately recognized Plato’s community-leader-as-physician riff, and I chuckled (just for a second) that McLaren was now out-Platonizing Plato.  For those who have not read much Plato, his argument for appointing the best and the brightest to administer a community rather than trusting such things to democracy involves comparing justice to medicine and noting that very few people want medical decisions made on the basis of popular opinion.  I would have expected such an argument to extend to ordained and seminary-trained clergy rather than freelance consultants, given the rather structured and hierarchical world of heart surgeons, but I was still chuckling.

But then, once the immediate amusement wore off, I remembered the mercenary and self-serving motives assigned to folks who actually dedicate their lives to one place as pastors and priests, and I was quite angry that he reserved none of that fury for hirelings who jet around the country collecting “consultant fees.”  For whatever reason, my angry self thought, McLaren prefers temporary fee-grabbers to those who practice the old monastic virtue of stability.

Then I realized that both Brian McLaren and Tony Jones pitch themselves as consultants, and after a bit of Google searching, I realized that Doug Pagitt and Len Sweet also advertise themselves as consultants. That’s when the anger turned to suspicion.

Please understand that I’m an equal-opportunity religious-consultant-hater; if Mark Driscoll or Jim Dobson or Ken Ham do the same, I don’t like that either. As an Aristotelian (the Aristotle whose Nicomachean Ethics I love, not the Ockham-Aristotle that McLaren invented), I believe that leadership happens best, especially for communities dedicated to reconstituting the body of the Cosmic King (that would be churches, folks), when those communities look within rather than shuffling through resumes, and I’m inclined to hold consultants far below the permanent-hire-from-out-of-town in terms of the goods they do for a community.  And given that McLaren in other places fires pot shots at the folks who dedicate their lives to particular communities in particular places, I couldn’t help but continue in my suspicion.

I realize that not everybody is as suspicious of out-of-town “experts” as I am, and I’d be fine if McLaren were consistently sanguine. But as it stands, it looks like he decided to use this book, which pitches itself as a moment of honesty, as a platform to promote himself and his Emergent Village buddies while calling dedicated ordained folks prison guards, and that’s an inexcusable bit of duplicity.

Brian McLaren Gets the Nod

As I wrote at the beginning of this marathon review, a book’s excellence lies not in its being right but in its being interesting. Given that criterion, I’d still recommend this book for folks interested in reading some philosophical-progressive alternatives to modern evangelicalism. There are some moments of sloppy thinking and others of outright self-serving dishonesty, but on balance, I can accept those sorts of things in a book that spurs me to think for a while, and I think that this book did. If you run into folks like the ones in the book’s opening anecdote, folks who tell you that Brian McLaren is too dangerous a writer for Christians to read without throwing their souls into peril, do those folks the courtesy of saying what the old lady in McLaren’s story told him: “I don’t see what the fuss is about” (2).

28 thoughts on “A New Kind of Christianity: A Review for The Ooze Viral Blogs”
  1. “The problems are obvious, of course: without even reaching for my bookshelf, I could tell you in which books Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, and Pope Benedict talk about the six figures that McLaren seems to think he’s rediscovering.”

    Like, for instance, the middle of Civitas Dei, in which Augustine marches through the whole plot of sacred history from creation to Christ, tagging all of MacLaren’s lineup along the way.

    /The Augustinian returns to his muttering/

  2. For all of the recognition of attacks on the church and Christianity by the media and political machines, I never cease to be amazed by the irony that more attacks come from within from without. While appreciative at occasional insights from McLaren, Sweet, and others, I cannot help but at times sense an underlying ego and desire to be acknowledged as having redefined what it means to be Christian, rather than simply being Christian as already defined by the life of Jesus. Perhaps if there was less writing and more living, less consulting and more serving, less judgment and more humility, the church would be the more vibrant place they claim to want it to be. Often, they seem to have forgotten Jesus words that a house divided itself cannot stand. In instigating division between Christians and their local church leaders, they seek to draw followers to themselves instead of Jesus. Consistently, the apostles, recognizing the various human failing of local leadership, still exhorted Christians to follow their leaders “as those who keep watch over your souls and must give an account.” How different an approach from the modern advice to break free from the leaders whom God has placed.

  3. I’d agree, Dan, except to add, stealing from Walt Whitman,

    Of myself ever reproaching myself (For who more egotistical than I, and who desiring more acknowledgement?)

    Good thoughts.

    Incidentally, Jeff Wright emailed me earlier today to let me know that Bill Kinnon, blogger over at Boar’s Head Tavern and friend of Internet Monk Michael Spencer, has tweeted a link to this post with the brief comment, “Another interesting review of ANKoC.”

    Yes, I know. Myself reproaching myself yet again… 🙂

  4. Does he actually suggest that we pay less attention to trained clergy than to “consultants”? Holy cow. How do we get in on that racket? We have a website and a podcast. Can someone pay me $100 to “consult” at a church? Here’s my advice to them: GET OUT OF THE WAY–JESUS COMIN’ THROUGH.

  5. Nathan,
    I’ve only occasionally appeared at the BHT as a guest blogger. Bill McKinnon & I are confused often as well as often confused. 🙂

    But I am privileged to call Michael my friend, even if his health causes me to tear up while I do.

    Good post here, btw. And I was glad to tweet about it.

  6. Your last bit about consultants was interesting. It seems to me to come straight from the business world, which I would have thought most in the EC would be against.

    On a semi-related note, I stopped reading McLaren’s blog a while ago when I realized it was basically just a marketing tool to let him put links to places to buy his books. Not that there is anything wrong with getting your ideas out there, but he links to his own books almost to the point of absurdity.

  7. Reading Ephesians 4:11-13
    It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

    I don’t see any place in there for consultants! Since I’m going to seminary, I of course see a place for well educated clergy. I would however argue that being ordained is not so much about being an expert and instead ought to be about equipping the saints. Ministers deserve a fair salary. Everyone needs wages and I don’t see that as the real problem. I do agree that many congregations are in big trouble. I’m not saying that outside perspectives are not important. I just don’t know if paying somebody big bucks to give advice is the answer. Congregations that are on the decline will take years, maybe decades to turn around. I think that well trained clergy, who have spiritual gifts, and are willing to commit years of their lives are more generally more helpful than high fee consultants.

  8. Nate
    As you know I hold no brief for Maclaren et al. But when you say that on the OOze the ‘Emergent words for “really quite bad” were “modern” and “modernist,” and the word for “so much better, don’t you think?” was “postmodern” that seems to me to be oversimplifying how those terms were used on the OOze not only be yours truly but by other participants in the conversation. I would suggest that “modern” and its cognates were used to describe a particular paradigm which suffers from particular if endemic evils. That that paradigm is both diffuse and pervasive necessarily results in those evils manifesting both diffusely and pervasively. Postmodern by contrast was a far simpler term, denoting an awareness of the particular nature of modernism and thus of its endemic evils.

    While some might have indulged in the intellectual laziness of modern = bad / postmodern = good my experience of the OOze is that that was not usage of many of the most worthwhile conversational partners.
    As for MacLaren a view from South Africa is that the relevance of a the latest epistle from pre-eminently materialist church culture in which the choices are about who get more money, consultants or clergy is so remote that there does not seem much utility of shifting what wheat there may be from the abundant chaff. Bosch, Hersch and their ilk are more worthwhile even if there aren’t new texts every month.

  9. First of all, Windy, I said that it was a joke that folks told on the Ooze, not that it was the case. I recognize that jokes often mislead, but I needed some bit to get into the Greco-Roman section of my review. As you rightly note, there were those on the Ooze who had actually read Derrida and Foucault and Lyotard and occasionally even Macintyre, and while I’m never above a dumb joke, I would apologize much more quickly to those folks for the dumb joke. 🙂

    You know I’m as ardent a reader of Bosch as you’ll find in America, Windy. As we’ve discussed on various blogs, I’m not as impressed with Frost and Hirsch, seeing in them the same sort of sloppiness as I see in much American Emergent theology. As for the reality on the ground in South Africa, you know me well enough that I’m not going to pontificate on such things, never having crossed the Atlantic myself. I’ll leave such things to folks who know.

  10. Sorry for the confusing info I passed along!

    I really enjoyed this review, Nate. One of the best out there. Thank you for you contribution to the discussion.


  11. Don’t sweat it, man–I still appreciate that you alerted me to attention that our site is getting. I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

    I have enjoyed following the discussion at your site and here and on amazon.com as it’s developed, and although I don’t know whether I’ll be this close to the start of a discussion any time soon, it’s been fun being one of the early-risers.

  12. hah, i think you must be referencing the thread i started back on the ooze titled is modernism really so bad? when i had no clue what it was. 🙂 actually, it was quite a good discussion–one i recommend reading as there was some pretty high-level discussion. windy set me straight in that thread that modernism = bad / postmodernism = good was not quite the answer as had been alluded by some others there.

    now, a question. i haven’t read mcclaren’s book and you know i don’t have a background in philosophy so help me out here nate. 🙂 are you, along with some other review i read somewhere, saying that hellenization didn’t affect, and namely distort, the way evangelicals practice christianity in 2010 in the west? i had read several articles contrasting the greek and hebrew ways of knowing and the conclusion seemed to be that many of the oh-so-conservative evangelical/fundamentalist misreadings were due to thinking like greeks rather than hebrews. this one by george e. ladd was quite interesting the greek versus the hebrew view of man. i had heard this idea from a number of places so to now hear–if i’m understanding you correctly which i’m not sure i am–this is inaccurate leaves me needing more info.

  13. This is all esoteric for me.

    There is something I’ve learned, though: When J P Holding refers to someone(ie,McLaren) as “a thoroughly disgusting individual”, that person must have made some compelling points.

    Holding also calls McLaren “an academic fraud”. That bit of irony doesn’t escape even me.

  14. linda,

    As I told Andrew, I mainly brought up the modernism bit to make a transition into that part of the review, and as I told him, it was a joke, not an assertion that claimed to divide the world at the joints. 🙂 I do remember some good discussions over at the PoMo and the Chu board, and sometimes I entertain the possibility of heading back over there, just before I look back at the pile of work that I’m behind on. 🙂

    I probably, in three posts, should have addressed the Hebrew question, but you’re right that I haven’t yet. My main objection to the binary “Greco-Roman vs. Hebrew” is that every iteration of Christianity from Paul’s letters to the synoptic gospels and so on and so on is some sort of blend between the two. I recognize that the Chaldean Talmudic tradition to some extent rejected the middle-Platonist stylings of Philo and others, but I’m of the mind that rejecting the Greeks is still to be in some sort of relationship with the Greeks.

    As I’ve noted in these posts, I prefer, when talking about Greek philosophy or modernist philosophy or feminist philosophy or any sort of philosophy to see citations from particular texts rather than broad statements about “THE Greco-Roman view” of this of “THE postmodernist view” of that. That’s why I’ve been enjoining (with varying degrees of clarity and success, I grant) that people talk about the content of ideas first and talk about sources and associations with fashionable and unfashionable intellectual movements later.

  15. Sarah,

    I’ll admit that even a few quick Google searches haven’t really let me know what JP Holding is. I grant that my concerns are particular to my expertise in the most recent post in this exchange; you’ll find it under 12 March 1010.

  16. However JP Holding also linked to this site in a review of ANKoC.

    I wouldn’t take Sarah’s denunciation too seriously, I doubt JP does.

    James does look at Brian McLaren here but isn’t particularly complimentary. However he doesn’t call him a disgusting individual or academic fraud, he does make this comment though.

    I read about 60 pages of the book before I had to stop reading. McLaren constantly engages a sort of passive-aggressive manipulation-by-whimsy-and-sympathy narrative; this is shown in how he tries to refute the usual view of hell (which, I again remind the reader, I do NOT endorse) with emotional rhetoric rather than reason and/or exegesis.

    Neither of these, however, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. What did THAT was his irresponsible scholarship, and particularly, his giving credence (by presentation in the mouths of characters) for ideas that resurrection was borrowed from Zoroastrianism and that the name “Pharisee” came from the word “Farsi, or Persian”.

    Given JP’s fascination with reading works written by actual scholars with actual knowledge of their subject matter, it’s not surprising that he’d give McLaren short shrift. Incompetence and post-modernism seem to go hand in hand.

    1. Jason, I don’t remember seeing that etymology in ANKoC. For that matter, I don’t remember that book’s having characters. Do you have in mind A New Kind of Christian rather than A New Kind of Christianity?

      [edit: I see now that the link is in fact a review of the earlier rather than the later book.]

  17. Sorry, JP reviews the A New Kind of Christianity in his latest E-Block. The one I linked to was a review of A New Kind of Christian.

    I should have made the distinction. Sorry.

    From the later review we get assessments like.

    Chapter 2
    * No one can accuse the emergent movement of having low self-esteem! In this chapter, McLaren compares himself and his compatriots to such revolutionary figures as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin (!), Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, and Galileo. [14-15] Unfortunately, with McLaren offering a highly inaccurate rendition of the latter’s experiences and of the history of geocentrism, the bad news is that the emergent movement’s members may indeed succeed as revolutionaries, albeit in an era where Wikipedia is treated as a reliable source. To that extent, the comparison to Paine, et al becomes tragic rather than inspiring.
    * On the bright side, McLaren does well to rebel against any who, as he says, “tell us to be quiet and accept the conventional answers we’ve been given in the past…” [22] The problem, as we will see, is that it is hard to see where McLaren derives the alleged “conventional answers” he claims to be denying. To put it in a nutshell, we will be left with the distinct impression that the “conventional answers” are mere caricatures that McLaren has invented whole cloth.

    It’s a two part review.

  18. Now that I’ve read this book for myself–and filled its margins with objections–I can say that the review Jason quotes is spot-on about the high self-esteem of the Emergent Church, at least that branch represented by McLaren. He also compares his theological rivals to slaveholders who attack him (the abolitionist, of course) with the Bible. It’s staggering.

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